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Go Back   Bimmerfest - BMW Forums > BMW Model Discussions > 3 Series / 4 Series > E36 (1991 - 1999)

E36 (1991 - 1999)
The E36 chassis 3-Series BMW was a huge hit among driving enthusiasts from the first moment the car hit the pavement. The E36 won numerous awards over the years it was produced and is still a favorite of many BMW enthusiasts to this day! -- View the E36 Wiki

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  #1  
Old 08-06-2013, 03:35 PM
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E36 Cooling System 101: What you need to know

Why does the cooling system need to be replaced every 75-100k miles?

The E36 BMW is by many accounts a very reliable car. They can last for hundreds of thousands of miles with little more than routine maintenance if a few key steps are followed. By a wide margin, the biggest weakness of the E36 BMW in terms of reliability is the cooling system. As these cars age, the plastic used in the cooling system components becomes very brittle, and by around 75-100k miles, they are at high risk of a catastrophic failure, which can produce the following outcomes:

- Cracked/sheered upper or lower radiator hose flange
- Cracked radiator tank(s)
- Radiator leaks at tank/core seams
- Leaking radiator cap
- Cracked/exploding expansion tank
- Cracked bleeder screw
- Cracked/sheered thermostat housing
- Ruptured upper/lower radiator hoses
- Water pump impeller failure
- Water pump bearing failure
- Mechanical/clutch fan failure/explosion

Failure of any of the above items can and will cause the engine to overheat. When most people acquire a new-to-them E36, they will inspect the cooling system visually, and if there are no leaks and the engine is not overheating, they assume that everything is fine and will continue driving the car as-is. The reason why this is a risky scenario is because the failure-prone cooling system components will look and function perfectly until they fail suddenly and without warning, thus leading to an overheating incident. In other words, visual inspection is not a sufficient means of determining the lifespan of cooling system components. Something can look brand new today, and then break tomorrow.


What are the consequences of a cooling system failure?

As mentioned earlier, the primary motivation for replacing all cooling system components every 75-100k miles is to avoid overheating the engine in the first place - this is preventive maintenance. The reason why avoiding an overheating scenario is so important with these cars is due to the fact that they utilize aluminum cylinder heads, which are extremely susceptible to warping and cracking from overheating. Warped heads and blown head gaskets are very common occurrences with the E36, but fortunately, this problem can largely be avoided if you overhaul the cooling system before something breaks. Generally speaking, the cost to repair a blown head gasket and/or warped (or cracked) cylinder head is in the ballpark of $1200 (sometimes more, sometimes less), and is not a job that is within the skill set of most of DIY'ers. On the other hand, the cost of a comprehensive cooling system overhaul is in the ballpark of $350-450 (parts only), and is within the skill set of most average DIY'ers. So, it's easier and less expensive to replace the cooling system before you have a problem on your hands.

Many people take the risk and figure that they will simply drive the car until something breaks, and when it does break, they assume they will notice that the temperature gauge has started to rise and will be able to shut the engine off before it has truly overheated. There are a few reasons why this is not a wise strategy:

- When driving, one spends most of the time looking through the windshield at the road ahead (thankfully), rather than constantly looking at the instrument cluster. Because of this, you may very likely not notice that the temp gauge has risen until it is too late and damage has occurred. In most cases, people won't notice until the temp gauge is buried deep in the red and the warning light illuminates, at which point your engine has been thoroughly cooked.

- The temp gauge is not accurate, or in more specific terms, the temp gauge has a built-in buffer/delay. This means that in some cases (such as in the event of an overheating), the actual coolant temperature is considerably higher than what the temp gauge is indicating. Many people figure that as long as the temp needle does not reach the red zone, they are safe. This is not true, because by the time the temp gauge has risen beyond the normal 12 o'clock position, the actual coolant temp can already be dangerously high, despite the fact that the needle hasn't yet reached the red zone. This is due to the buffer/delay.

So, now that we have established how the cooling system fails (brittle plastic), and why it is so important to avoid overheating the engine (high risk of blown head gasket and/or warped head), we are brought to our next topic of discussion:


Which cooling system components need to be replaced?

The general rule here is that pretty much everything needs to be replaced, and as mentioned at the beginning, they should be replaced every 75-100k miles or right now if you do not have proof that they have been replaced recently (this second point is of particular importance to individuals with newly acquired E36 BMWs). If the previous owner of your car did not provide you with receipts of a recent cooling system overhaul, consider your cooling system to be at-risk and in need of comprehensive replacement. Here are the parts (with part numbers) which should be included in your cooling system overhaul:

Radiator:
- 6 Clylinder: 17111728908
- 4 Cylinder: 17111728907

Radiator cap: 17111742231

Radiator hoses:
- 6 Cylinder: 11531708499 (upper) / 11531726344 (lower)
- 4 Cylinder (1.8L M42): 11531721708 (upper) / 11531721709 (lower)
- 4 Cylinder (1.9L M44): 11531743535 (upper) / 11531247261 (lower)

Expansion tank (6-Cyl only): 17111723520

Bleeder screw (aftermarket brass available): 17111712788

Thermostat housing:
- 6 Cylinder (aftermarket aluminum available): 11531722531, Gasket: 11531740437
- 4 Cylinder (1.8L M42): 11531721966, Gasket: 11531721172
- 4 Cylinder (1.9L M44 – includes thermostat): 11531743017, Gasket: 11531743179

Thermostat: 11537511083

Water pump:
- 6 Cylinder: 11517527799
- 4 Cylinder: 11510393338

Fan:
- 6 Cylinder: 11521712058
- 4 Cylinder: 11521723363

Belts:
- 6 Cylinder: Main: 11281437929, A/C: 11281437873
- 4 Cylinder (1.8L M42): Main: 11281247986, A/C: 11281743193
- 4 Cylinder (1.9L M44): Main: 11281437369, A/C: 11281743193

Coolant: 82141467704


A note about water pumps

BMW used no fewer than three different styles of water pump throughout the E36 production run. They all fit interchangeably (within the same engine), but differ in the material used for the impeller. From 1992 until sometime partway through 1995, BMW installed water pumps which had plastic impellers, which were notorious for premature failure due to the plastic impeller becoming brittle and sheering off inside the engine, thus resulting in no coolant circulation and subsequent overheating. They were known for failing as early as 60k miles, and sometimes much earlier than that. After BMW finally figured out what was going on with their water pumps, they implemented an updated pump sometime in late '95 to early '96 which used a metal impeller, thus eliminating the risk of impeller failure. Also during the 1996-99 period, some E36 BMWs received water pumps with plastic composite impellers. I've never personally seen a water pump with the composite impeller, but they are out there. Supposedly they are safe to use and do not suffer the same ailment as the early pumps with regular plastic impellers. Nevertheless, pumps with metal impellers now seem to be the most widely adopted configuration for the E36, so that is what I would recommend.

One might then ask the question: "Since I own a '96-99 E36, which came with a water pump with a metal impeller from the factory, why do I still need to replace the water pump every 75-100k miles?" The answer is that while the metal impeller will not pose a risk, you do still run the risk of experiencing a bearing failure, and since OEM water pumps generally run in the ballpark of $60-80 (which is very reasonable), it makes a lot more sense to replace the pump while you are in there replacing everything else simply out of precaution.


A note about aluminum thermostat housings

Since aftermarket aluminum t-stat housings are not susceptible to cracking the same way the OEM plastic housings are, many people elect to install the aluminum t-stat housing. It makes perfect sense to perform this upgrade, and BMW should have used aluminum (or at least a more durable plastic) for the t-stat housing from the factory. That said, virtually all of the aftermarket aluminum t-stat housings available are cheap sand cast units made in China with poor manufacturing consistency. While I can only speak to this based on my own personal experience and the similar experiences of a handful of acquaintances, I cannot fully recommend the use of aluminum t-stat housings. I installed one on my car, and despite using oxygen sensor safe RTV t-stat housing sealant around the gasket and properly torqueing down the housing, I could never get it to seal correctly. It was more of a seep rather than a leak, but coolant was getting out, albeit very slowly. I've discussed this topic with other E36 BMW owners, and in doing so, I learned that I am not the only one to have had this experience. Mine was purchased from Turner Motorsport. Ultimately, the way I view them is this: If you get a good example that seals correctly, you're home free and will have a more durable alternative to the OEM plastic unit. If not, then you're going to wish you had bought the OEM plastic unit. When I received my aluminum t-stat housing, it did look to be perfectly formed, but still leaked nonetheless. I've recently switched back to the OEM plastic unit, and I am now leak-free, but I will have to be diligent about replacing it at the prescribed intervals.


A note about brass bleeder screws

Buy it – there are no drawbacks or caveats.


Additional information

This guide is meant to tell you why you need to periodically overhaul the cooling system, and exactly what parts are needed to perform an overhaul. There is already a lot of information about the E36 cooling system and its shortcomings available online, including HERE on our very own forum. A simple Google search of "E36 BMW cooling system DIY" will yield a wealth of information, including step-by-step tutorials, recommendations, photos, and many sad stories of people who didn't know to include a cooling system overhaul in their general maintenance schedule (or knew about the risks, but didn't heed the warnings...). Use this guide as a supplement to all the other information that is readily accessible online and you will be in good shape.
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Last edited by ZeGerman; 08-06-2013 at 04:39 PM.
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Old 08-06-2013, 03:46 PM
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Old 08-06-2013, 03:48 PM
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Motion to sticky
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Old 08-06-2013, 03:51 PM
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Old 08-06-2013, 05:00 PM
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I think we can motion as much as we want, but nothing will happen unless we contact a moderator. And if that happens, we should get rid of some of the stickies up there currently.
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Old 08-06-2013, 06:30 PM
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Old 08-06-2013, 07:14 PM
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ZeGerman ZeGerman is offline
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Thanks Joe! Now I'm waiting for the moment when I get to tell someone to replace their cooling system, and I can just post a link to this!
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Old 08-06-2013, 08:08 PM
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Amen! However there will be many many newbies in the near future asking about what they need to do with their cars as far as maintenance is concerned.

Good work on creating this though, always very informative and knowledgeable!
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Old 08-07-2013, 04:58 AM
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Thanks, mate!
After the drive home today my two year called me over to check out the funny blue puddle he was slooshing in. Something has cracked and, due to the shipping delay in ordering parts to Australia, I was wondering if I should just bite the bullet and replace the whole cooling system in one order.
Decision made! Thank you much, the timing was amazing!
Once again, ZeGerman: Better than vodka and Xanax. Actually.... better go test that out!
Cheers!
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Old 08-07-2013, 05:56 AM
hnaz hnaz is offline
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Karl,

I have the new water pumps with the composite impeller. They are as tough as the metal ones. I run it in my 328i, had it in my 318i, had it in my 1993 325i, and now have it in my current S50 swap M-Tech engine. If the Stewart water pump ever fails in my M3, it will go in that car as well. It works great, same price, and as tough as carbon fiber. It is densely compacted composite materials and even sounds like metal when you tap it with a screw driver. So I think they have an inner lining of metal for extra sturdiness.

Oh, just as another addition to your topic about cooling systems, it should be noted that coolants now, with almost all car companies now using aluminium blocks and heads in their engines, are safe for our BMWs. Pentofrost (made by the Pentosin folks) and the Audi coolants are AMAZING products. They have a water wetter type material mixed in with their solutions. How can I tell? I look at the surface tension they provide by putting a drop on a flat surface and pressing on the dot. They flatten and coat the surface. The BMW coolant has some of that same stuff in it as well, but does not stick to the surface as well as the Pentofrost or Audi coolant does. I also see Motul has the same type of coolant as Pentofrost, but is way more expensive and comes in 1.5 liters, like the Pentofrost does.

Hope this helps.
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Old 08-07-2013, 07:42 AM
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southpark11235 southpark11235 is offline
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Nice work Karl.
The two things I would are note on coolant and the drawback of a brass bleeder screw.
Something like this for the coolant:
“Because of the aluminum in the cooling system normal coolant with phosphates in it will corrode the system. You should only use phosphate free coolant. Two common phosphate free coolants are the BMW blue I gave the PN for above and Mercedes Benz pink. Most people use one of these coolants because are cheap and available at any BMW or Mercedes dealer if they needed right then, but any phonate free coolant will work just as well. It is also important that you mix the coolant with distilled water (if not pre-mixed. Most are not pre mixed). Distilled water is cheap and available at Walmart for less than $1 per gallon.”

And something like this for the bleeder screw:
“The problem with the plastic bleeder screw is that it is easy to strip the head when you are screwing it in. This is not that big of a deal as it can easily be drilled out if worst comes to worst, but you will need a new one and this can hold up your project. A brass one solves this problem as there is no way strip the head when you are screwing it in. However now the threads in the expansion tank will strip first if you over tighten it. This is harder to do than striping the head so as long as you do not go all he-man on the screw you should be fine. This just something to think about when tightening it down.”
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Old 08-07-2013, 10:04 AM
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Really good info. I hope this gets sticky'd. I would still add a bit about the aux fan and relays even though they're technically part of the A/C system. It's a nice backup to have in place.
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Old 08-07-2013, 10:16 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hnaz View Post
Karl, I have the new water pumps with the composite impeller. They are as tough as the metal ones.
Cool, thanks for sharing this, Harry. I've never been totally sure when BMW used the composite impeller water pumps, and as far as I can tell, they installed the metal pumps and the composite pumps concurrently toward the last few years of E36 production. My '98 had the original water pump in it (with corresponding date stamp), and it was the metal impeller. I think BMW just installed whatever they had delivered to them at the time, sometimes it was metal, and sometimes it was composite.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SCJon View Post
I also bought the expansion tank hose (17111723521) just out of the philosophy that any hose I'm removing I should go ahead and replace.
Yep, that makes sense, and is wise. There are in fact many other hoses included in the cooling system, but I figured for the purposes of this guide I would just include the basics. Another coolant hose which is easy to replace (though not particularly failure prone) is the lower expansion tank hose, which connects to the bottom of the expansion tank, then runs across the bottom of the radiator, then turns 90-degrees and runs along the frame rail and then into the side of the engine. It's P/N 11531740649.

Quote:
Originally Posted by southpark11235 View Post
And something like this for the bleeder screw:
Yeah, this makes sense. Thanks for sharing! Gotta remind people to not go all He-Man on things.
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Last edited by ZeGerman; 08-07-2013 at 10:17 AM.
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Old 08-07-2013, 10:28 AM
hnaz hnaz is offline
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Originally Posted by ZeGerman View Post
Cool, thanks for sharing this, Harry. I've never been totally sure when BMW used the composite impeller water pumps, and as far as I can tell, they installed the metal pumps and the composite pumps concurrently toward the last few years of E36 production. My '98 had the original water pump in it (with corresponding date stamp), and it was the metal impeller. I think BMW just installed whatever they had delivered to them at the time, sometimes it was metal, and sometimes it was composite.



Yep, that makes sense, and is wise. There are in fact many other hoses included in the cooling system, but I figured for the purposes of this guide I would just include the basics. Another coolant hose which is easy to replace (though not particularly failure prone) is the lower expansion tank hose, which connects to the bottom of the expansion tank, then runs across the bottom of the radiator, then turns 90-degrees and runs along the frame rail and then into the side of the engine. It's P/N 11531740649.



Yeah, this makes sense. Thanks for sharing! Gotta remind people to not go all He-Man on things.
Might as well add water wetter. Sure it isn't needed, but makes your cooling system run more efficiently by getting rid of surface tension.

I'm still a fan of Pentofrost and Audi coolant. The added water wetter type material in their solutions are superior. If you have the money, then go with Motul.
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Old 08-07-2013, 11:06 AM
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Old 08-07-2013, 11:36 AM
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Cool it got stickied. Does this also mean the other stickies are going to be cleaned up?
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Old 08-07-2013, 11:44 AM
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^See the OT thread. I just asked everyone for input on what kind of changes we'd like to put in place. In all reality, I think we need a major overhaul, which will likely involve pulling information from some of the existing threads and putting it into new threads in a more organized manner. Once we decide on that, we can make the changes on our own and then submit them for sticky status, and then ask for the old stuff to be removed at that time.
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Old 08-16-2013, 01:07 PM
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fcpeuro.com has a overhaul kit for the e36 cooling system with the m52 motor. All hoses including heater hoses, clamps and o-rings for $111 bucks.
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Old 08-16-2013, 01:18 PM
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Yes, FCP Euro does carry kits, but if all you are replacing is the hoses, clamps, and o-rings, that isn't an "overhaul". You also need to replace all of the significant items listed above, which will cost considerably more than $111.
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Old 08-16-2013, 01:34 PM
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Re: E36 Cooling System 101: What you need to know

Quote:
Originally Posted by valleyd01 View Post
fcpeuro.com has a overhaul kit for the e36 cooling system with the m52 motor. All hoses including heater hoses, clamps and o-rings for $111 bucks.
FCP kits strike again!

Go pull up each individual item in the kit, add the correct brand and quantity you your cart, and the total is........ $70.88!

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Old 08-16-2013, 02:39 PM
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Did you ever contact them about that stuff, Chad? Seems totally weird.
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Old 08-16-2013, 02:43 PM
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Re: E36 Cooling System 101: What you need to know

No, totally forgot til I saw this thread. If anyone wants to drop them a line with links to my posts about it, they're certainly welcome to. It just hasn't been high on my priorities lately.

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Old 08-18-2013, 05:46 PM
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Just replaced my rad with new custom-mounted mishimoto tranny cooler... I have been bleeding the system intensely, it's ridiculous how much air can circulate in these cars.

I think something I'd like to add is to regularly flush the system with water, maybe once per 2-3 years. A trick I picked up to really flush out the system is to replace the thermostat but first remove the old one and leave it out, put the housing back on, reconnect all hoses and run the car with 100% distilled water for a couple weeks. Then drain the water, install the new thermostat and go back to regular coolant mixture.
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Old 08-22-2013, 11:18 AM
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Agree on flushing every two years, but there is no need to run distilled water for any longer than is necessary to flush the system. By running with water alone, you are lowering the boiling point and making the car's cooling system work harder.
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For sale: E30/E36 front sway links
For sale: OEM E36 328 catback
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  #25  
Old 08-22-2013, 11:31 AM
Dunzo Dunzo is offline
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Location: Canada
 
Join Date: Jun 2012
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Mein Auto: 1995 318ti
Yeah, it's just something extra you can do to flush the system out. It's not really necessary, and you're only using the water for a week or so. Don't be taking any long, long drives with it. The idea is that without the thermostat, the water will just completely circulate through the rad, and hot water always does a better job cleaning then cold water.
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